11 September 2009

I Say Poetry and Then Your Eyes Glaze Over


Maybe poetry went wrong for you in high school. Perhaps an English teacher decided to start unraveling Shakespeare like the Da Vinci Code, until it resembled a complicated algebra problem…hexameter. No, I mean iambic!


Somewhere in being taught how to dissect a poem to reveal its “meaning” poetry became nebulous—a dangerous sea for amateurs to navigate alone. I admit it; I felt the same way for a long time. Even though I like poetry now, it can still be murky, confusing or just plain weird.


In 1957 the linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He wanted to illustrate even though a sentence can be grammatically correct, it can fail to make sense. He called this a “category mistake,” but I say the sentence was a poetic success.


If we can set aside our need for intellectual clarity (meaning) and our fear of not being able to hear how many metrical feet are in a line, maybe we can learn to enjoy poetry for its own sake, colorless greens and all.


My favorite poems open me to new possibilities and shock me with their exciting use of language. Poetry when it is good lifts me out of myself, if only for a moment. Let me leave you with a poem by Ted Kooser from his book Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.


Jan 26

overcast, cold and still


A hundred yards ahead

a coyote crosses the road at a lope,

stops on a rise, looks back,

runs on. It is less like

the shape of an animal running

than the shape of something flying.

When I get to the place where I saw it,

no tracks in the snow.

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